Many people associate Christian faith with a “blind leap into the dark”. In their opinion, Christians are required to throw away reason in order to embrace a fantastic story that helps them worry less and sleep more soundly. Modern culture often ignores the voice of Christianity, because it is assumed that faith has no bearing upon reason.
But is this true? Are faith and reason mutually exclusive? Can there be reconciliation between the two? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. One does not have to check his brain at the door when entering the realm of faith. On the contrary, we have an injunction from the Almighty not only to love Him with all of our heart and soul, but with our mind as well.
What is Faith?
Many of the misunderstandings concerning faith and reason stem from a misconception of what faith really is. Many consider faith to be some mystical feeling in the pit of their stomach; a magical intuition that guides them to deeper truth. To others, faith is a thoughtless adherence to creeds and dogma without any concern or attention to the facts that under gird them. Neither of these is the Biblical definition of faith, nor are they the traditional concept of faith that the church has held for centuries.
Faith According to Scripture
Nearly every time the word “faith” is used in the New Testament, it is translated from a form of the Greek word pistis. The primary definition of pistis is a “a conviction of the truth of something that leads to belief“. We see, therefore, that the New Testament conception of faith is not a belief in an irrational fantasy, but rather a confidence in what one knows to be true. As one theologian has said, “The heart cannot delight in what the mind rejects as false.”[ii]
The most comprehensive treatment on the subject of faith found in Scripture is found in Hebrews 11. Often regarded as the “faith hall of fame”, this chapter sets forth a concise definition of faith in its first verse: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
A closer look at the attributes given to faith found in this verse will greatly increase our understanding of what faith really is. The word “substance” is translated from the Greek word hupostatis. This word, which is translated as “confidence” in 3:14, means “the strongest possible form of confidence that something is true“. The word “evidence”, found within this verse and translated from elegchos, literally means “a strong conviction“. The verse, literally translated, would read, “Now faith is the confidence of things hoped for and the conviction (or assurance) of things not seen.”
By looking carefully at this and other portions of Scripture, we can ascertain that the Biblical concept of faith is not an irrational leap into the dark, but a reasonable step into the light. Although our faith rests in things which cannot be seen, it does so after being previously convinced that those things, though unseen, are real nonetheless.
Faith According to Theology
When we examine much of the traditional theology of the church, we find no conception of an irrational or blind faith. The theology of saving faith was carefully systemized by the theologians of the past. These men divided true, saving faith into three components: Notitia, Assensus, and Fiducia.
This word means “the idea” and deals with the recognition of facts and data. Faith cannot exist without some form of knowledge of what one is to believe. In regard to saving faith, there must be an exposure to the data or facts of the gospel before one will ever be able to have faith in what it says. Romans 10:14-17 states:
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Thus we see that faith must begin with a conscious recognition of fact, and cannot exist within a mental vacuum.
Assensus means “to give intellectual agreement to the validity or truth of a statement”. This means that one not only knows (notitia) the message of the Gospel, but that they have agreed that its message is true (assensus).
Although notitia and assensus are necessary to saving faith they are not sufficient in and of themselves. This insufficient type of faith is known as fides historica, or mere historical faith, as opposed to fides salvifica (saving faith).
It is important to note, however, that assensus is necessary to salvation. There must be an agreement with the facts before someone can exercise faith. This, in itself, demonstrates Christianity to be reasonable faith; because there is no disregard of fact or evidence. It does not mean that the person coming to faith understands all of the facts presented, but that he has agreed that they are true in light of the evidence. To quote Charles Hodge,
“God requires nothing irrational of his creatures. He does not require faith without evidence. Christianity is equally opposed to superstition and Rationalism. The one is faith without appropriate evidence, the other refuses to believe what it does not understand, in spite of evidence which should command belief.”[iv]
This term literally means “trust”. It is the third and final necessary component of faith. It involves an appropriation and reliance on what one knows to be true. In the case of the gospel, it is a complete surrender to, and total trust in the promises made by God through Christ.
It is also important to note that fiducia involves trust in a person and not just agreement with fact (assensus). Our faith is not is not based on evidence or facts about Christ (though it may be supported by it), but in Christ Himself.
We exercise these three aspects of faith every day. Here is a simple but cogent illustration. Our first reaction upon walking into a dark room is to search for the light switch. Upon locating the switch we use it to turn on the light. All of the three components that have been previously mentioned are involved in this simple act of faith.
- 1. Notitia– We realize that the room is dark and we discover the location of the light switch.
- 2. Assensus– We intellectually assent that the switch will turn on the lights based upon on the evidence (i.e. switches found in similar locations have always turned on the lights before).
- 3. Fiducia– By actually flipping the switch we have placed our trust in the fact that it will perform the task we have already mentally agreed that it would do.
Although these three divisions of faith may occur almost simultaneously, each one is necessary for true faith to occur. Therefore a study of the very nature of faith demonstrates that the idea that it is “blind” or somehow separate from reason is absurd. While reason is not faith, it is necessary for faith.
[ii] Pinnock, Clark, Set Forth Your Case (The Craig Press, 1967), p. 3
.[iv] Hodge, Charles, Systematic Theology, Taken from Introduction to Chapter 3, “Rationalism”